‘It’s Over. We Can Coexist Now’: Hugh Howey Calls A Ceasefire

iStockphoto / Dainela
iStockphoto / Dainela

‘No Need To Come Out On Top’

It’s time to back off a bit on the arguments for self-publishing.

In a classic example of “burying your lead” — along with a hatchet –the author-activist Hugh Howey quietly has signaled a stand-down to his supporters this week And he’s doing it with the note of generosity that many who follow him have come to expect of the man:

Will a group hug be too much to ask for? I hope not.

Say what?

Say Gandhi. Hugh Howey just did. He quotes the mahatma in one of his most cherished lines:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.”

And then, Howey goes on to customize the quote for self-publishing:

Most open-minded authors must now understand that they have options, and what those options are. The only thing about Gandhi’s quote that doesn’t apply to the stigmatization of self-publishing is the idea of “winning.” There’s no need to come out on top here. The whole point is to have equal access and equal respect, and self-publishing platforms have granted the former while readers have granted us the latter.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

The article itself, on Howey’s site, is headlined Group Hug. And “burying your lead” is an old journalism phrase that refers to times when you place the news angle of a story “down” inside it, not right at the top. Howey carefully builds his argument before revealing his readiness to ease the rhetoric. To those who know him, this could easily have been about his hug-someone T-shirt campaign. (Yes, he’s a hug-activist, too, and I’m not making that up.)

But Howey is doing something far more significant. This embrace could just signal the rapprochement many have felt they need to see, particularly in deeply divided author corps.

An outpouring of comments on the piece indicates that many of his readers understand and appreciate what he’s after here. He writes:

It’s over. We can coexist now. People can publish however they want, with opportunities for moving back and forth from one path to the other. And publishers are going to have to continue to sweeten their offerings to lure authors over to their side, while self-published authors will have to continue to up their game to sway readers to their works. The former will probably lower prices while the latter raises them. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle.

If the proponents of traditional publishing paths know an olive branch when they see one, their eyes, you can bet, are wide open right now.

Is it possible we could start seeing more handshakes than fist pumps among the writers?

Maybe it’s time. Howey says it is.

Content And Context

One of the most distressing side effects of the “negotiation tactics” that Amazon has played out on Hachette books’ sales pages has been the rise of a sharp, bitter animosity between authors — the self-publishing independents on one hand, the traditionally engaged authors on the other.

“All men mean well,” as Bernard Shaw had Jack Tanner write in his Maxims for Revolutionists in Man and Superman, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones.” In other words, no one gets up in the morning planning to create a problem.

Nevertheless, the coming together of the Authors United group of writers led by Douglas Preston — I  interviewed him for The FutureBook — has proved to be a surprisingly polarizing moment between authors. Coupled with with the ongoing drumbeat of tension that has accompanied the rise of digitally enabled self-publishing, the Amazon-Hachette sales-terms negotiations struggle has triggered a long, hot summer of intra-authorial invective.

It is probably fair to say that — as with any good insurgency — the “uprising” of self-publishing, as it were, has been the more vociferous sector all along. This, of course, is historically common and perfectly logical: those who represent the realm have less to yell about than those who are storming its gates (and gatekeepers). That hasn’t made it any easier to bear the noise, however.

And the fog of war has given way to the fatigue of the fight in the industry! the industry!

Publishing people are sick of this animosity. No one looks good dissing others. It’s odd how few understand that.

Every element of publishing today has far too many challenges still unanswered for its best folks to be spending their energy chewing each others’ legs off. If they want hostility, why not fight the threat of Angry Birds? — such time-burning, addictive entertainment is a far bigger danger to the culture of literature than Amazon and Hachette’s contretemps and the paths to publication it has come to represent.

And that’s what you read in so many comments on Howey’s new article, his respondents gratefully welcoming his call to fall back.

The intense negativity of some on the self-publishing side, it’s true, has been off-putting to many and may — I said may — actually have made it harder for self-publishing writers to gain the respect they’ve hoped for as quickly as they might have done.

Even Howey in this new article is careful to hail the most vocal of the opposition. After all, when you start cooling the boys of battle, you get their buy-in by acknowledging the truly valuable contributions of their hottest heads:

What people like Joe Konrath have been saying for ages is that the economic advantages of self-publishing were too great and that the truth of this would eventually make itself obvious.

This is true, that is what Konrath has been saying and there has been much to applaud in many concepts he’s put forward. Would that he had said it in such rational terms more frequently, good thinker that he is. (Konrath and I have had an excellent exchange on the “tone issue,” one that I appreciate — I’m not blindsiding him here.)

Ironically, writes Howey, the anger we’ve seen aimed at the publishing establishment may now be detected among some “legacy” proponents: what’s left, Howey asserts, is ad hominem attack, not substantive criticism.

He lists six assumptions and/or accusations originally leveled at the self-publishing approach that he now sees as moot, criticisms rendered toothless by time and evidence. Those assumptions/accusations are:

  • No one sells books by self-publishing
  • No one makes money self-publishing
  • Self-publishing will end a writing career
  • Self-published books are inferior in quality
  • Traditional publishers offer much more than self-publishing to the author
  • Self-publishing means less distribution

To that last point, self-publishing authors may be heartened by the bestselling independent author Barbara Freethy’s new arrangement with Ingram Publisher Services for international print distribution of her popular titles. I have that story for you here, in case you missed it. Howey, himself, has adamantly congratulated both the distributor Ingram and Freethy, in the same even-handed tones with which he has also congratulated Digital Book World on a balanced tone he perceives in Rich Bellis’ writings there. We’ve seen this, as well, in his cheers for The Bookseller’s new project with Nook to present newly published indie titles. His willingness to applaud progress where it lies is something not always echoed by his associates. You begin to wonder if some of them may not love the fight more than good news.

And when Howey writes in this new piece about personal attack, he moves forward with his trademark support intact for Amazon’s enabling role in self-publishing’s rise:

People denigrate Jeff Bezos’ character instead of pointing out the options Amazon opens up to the hopeful artist. Salon.com writes a hit piece accusing me of destroying book culture (and does so with misattributed quotes) instead of pointing out anything wrong with what I’ve said about the positives of self-publishing.

Amazonian Assumptions

If you’re not familiar with it, the Salon piece he mentions may well have helped drive Howey to his new understanding of where his opposition lies.

Rob Spillman
Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman published the piece Tuesday: Amazon’s selfish defender: Hugh Howey’s short-sighted, Ayn Rand-ian argument harms book culture. Most of Spillman’s bark is in that headline. But he does bring up one question that has stymied other observers of Howey’s position. As he fashions it:

Will Howey and company still be making bank once Amazon is the only game in town? Or will Howey and his cohorts find their profits diminished when Amazon, not needing to compete with other publishers, sets whatever terms they would like?

Now, Howey has hardly recommended that Amazon should be “the only game in town,” of course. His count as of last week stood at 34 contracts with traditional publishers, his agent Kristin Nelson told me in Frankfurt. That includes the high-visibility print-only deal with Simon & Schuster in the US for the first book in the Wool trilogy and multiple contracts with Random House in the UK.

Funny how hard it is for folks to remember that Howey praises publishers that will “partner” with him, isn’t it?

But the core quandary of the question Spillman has raised was also called recently — and earnestly — by Mike Shatzkin.

Mike Shatzkin
Mike Shatzkin

Shatzkin is the affable and influential longtime industry player who is directing the upcoming Digital Book World Conference and Expo, and who works as a consultant to publishers. He recently named Howey and some of his associates “the publisher-bashing commentariat.” I love that term, commentariat, it’s good, isn’t it? Shatzkin is referring, one assumes, mainly to Howey, Konrath, Barry Eisler and David Gaughran, who frequently work in tandem, a kind of round-robin of blogged commentary on one issue or another.

In The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out, Shatzkin voices a confusion that many in the traditional arena have cited: if self-publishers are so pleased with self-publishing, why should they try to reform the traditional industry they’ve left?

In contrast to Spillman’s piece, Shatzkin doesn’t seem to intend this as an ad hominem take-down at all. A cool-headed reader will read him going to the mat to praise Howey:

I have been persuaded in Howey’s case that he personally rises above self-interest in his industry commentary. Hugh’s a nice guy, a smart guy, and a socially-conscious guy. He and I have had many candid and mutually respectful exchanges…Howey is a true believer and a crusader who is sincerely convinced that the standard publisher terms for authors are unfair and need to change. He has occasionally expressed skepticism and concern about some of Amazon’s decisions and behavior, particularly around the complex compensation schemes for Kindle authors with their KOLL (lending library) and Kindle Unlimited (subscription) initiatives which buys him a certain amount of credibility.

What Shatzkin argues is that Howey’s and some of his colleagues’ support of Amazon is counter to their own cause. It is not an idle question. “Do they really think that Amazon will offer them more if Hachette is weaker?” he asks.

Shatzkin’s implication is that a strong “legacy” publishing array helps rein in Amazon’s own presumed interest in moving unilaterally and thus is better for self-publishing authors. He writes:

If Hachette “wins” — or if Amazon’s margins on transactions with publishers are not improved — how does this injure the self-publishing authors who are working successfully that way now? Simple logic says that Amazon will treat them best when the possibilities offered by publishers are the best.

While that position may be galling to some in self-publishing, the question is worth asking. Isn’t there, perhaps, some merit to the checks and balances of many outlets for sales and production in the digital era’s multi-mode publishing infrastructure?

Here’s a fun aside: If you had time — and who does? — to sift through the more-than 300 comments causing Disqus to groan on that post from Shatzkin, you’d find an interesting tidbit. Shatzkin is guided by a commenter to discover a moment in 2010 when Penguin, he writes, actually withheld “about 100 titles [from Amazon] for about 45 days when agency pricing started.” That’s right. In that case, a publisher withheld content from the retailer. This is no one-way street.

That incident may be nothing but a quaint footnote now, but it’s a nice reminder that amid the complexities of publishing’s protracted imbroglio with the digital dynamic, there have been plenty of felicitous and not-so-happy moments on any and all sides.

Maybe this is where Howey now finds his separate peace.

Enough has been won, he’s telling his followers. No one needs to be the crazed soldier who doesn’t know the war is over. No more casualties are needed.

The context has shifted. The content can, too.

Hugs ‘N’ Shrugs

Commenters on Howey’s article seem ready to join him in sheathing the swords. And, as usual, you get some helpful additional angles on these arguments in a quick perusal of reactions to his essay.

“Gerald,” for example, writes:

I get tired of the ‘us vs. them’ posts and articles. It’s like the discussion here in the UK about the political debates in the run-up to the General Election next year. It matters not one jot what everyone says on whichever side they are supporting. People will make their own minds up, and the more antagonistic the discussion gets, the more the interested parties will wander off and become disconnected.

Howey responds with a helpful slant on his new perception that the issues have been put across successfully:

It’s so easy for these things to get ramped up. You respond a little louder than the last response, and it goes on and on. I can’t even tell what some of these hit pieces are going on about anymore. All I know is that people aren’t talking authors out of self-publishing like they used to, and that’s all I care about. I think it’s a better option for the aspiring author, wherever they intend on ending up in their careers. And I think the more authors who go the self-publishing route, the more publishers will have to compete with higher pay for writers and lower prices for readers.

Sabrina Flynn
Sabrina Flynn

Sabrina Flynn writes:

Just in the past year, I’ve noticed a huge shift in attitudes. I’m attending my first Bouchercon Mystery Convention in November and was really surprised when they put me on an author panel. The book vendor who I contacted about selling my books at the convention didn’t even blink twice when he found out I was self-published. It was very refreshing!

And Howey responds with some interesting insight into where popular genre-based “cons” stand in terms of including self-publishing authors:

For some reason, the science fiction cons are really lagging. DragonCon had zero in the way of self-publishing panels, but that’s because of who they have running the literature track. WorldCon wasn’t that great the two years I went, but maybe this year was better. It’ll keep changing. For the better.

Later, in response to another comment about science-fiction organizations’ resistance to self-publishing, he adds:

So weird that the genre of the future is unwilling to embrace change.

K.B. Owen
K.B. Owen

K.B. Owen writes that she sees uneven progress among the genres in self-publishing:

I really wish my genre – mystery fiction – would catch up with the RWA and other organizations. We self-pubbed mystery writers feel like second-class citizens. Conventions act as if we do not exist: no signing tables, no guest appearances on panels, no topics about self-publishing, no vendor sales, no qualification for prizes/awards. We are faceless and voiceless.

Howey uses his AuthorEarnings.com input to point out that Mystery/Crime (which in the UK leads over romance, by the way) will pull forward:

It’ll have to change. Our last report at AE showed strong indie earnings in Mystery/Thriller. That will only grow.

Ricardo Fayet
Ricardo Fayet

Reedsy’s Ricardo Fayet reacts with calm but thoughtful caution for the amount of digital distance still ahead of us:

This is a fast-moving industry, and we’re only at the beginning of the biggest disruption in the industry’s history. We’re still adapting, whether we are publishers, trad. pub. authors, self-pub. authors, agents, editors, etc.

What Hugh, Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler et al have been doing is accelerate the moment we’ll reach a “balance” by raising awareness around self-publishing.

But we’re still very far from the group hug. The first attacks mentioned in the article might not be voiced directly anymore, but they are still in many traditional people’s minds. Heck, I hear them everyday.

This is good, too, from Patrice Fitzgerald:

Indeed, we have arrived. I know we are considered legit now because I’ve been invited to give a course on self-publishing at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford. As a self-publisher, Mark Twain was a fairly major success.

James Scott Bell
James Scott Bell

The author and instructor James Scott Bell joins in on the Passive Guy blog pickup of Howey’s essay to write that he’s seeing the progress in tone from the industry that impresses Howey:

It is really remarkable how far we’ve come in just 7 years. When Konrath and Hocking and the like were showing what was possible, the guards on the battlements of the Forbidden City were like the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “You don’t frighten us, indie pig-dogs!” You don’t hear that anymore.

And Bell’s choice of venue for his comment is interesting. He knows, as does Howey, that it’s in such settings as the Passive Guy blog that a call to “hold your fire!” may be hardest to put across. Self-publishing’s rebel yells emanate from such hubs. It’s in these forums that “it’s so easy for these things to get ramped up,” as Howey puts it.

But maybe it’s more important at this stage for the traditional world to hear what Howey is saying now, anyway. He’ll be saying it next week at the Novelists Inc. Conference at Tradewinds Island Grand Resort, where he’s a panelist in our First Word sessions and giving one of the most avidly awaited workshops of the sold-out conference: “The Publishing world is Changing: How Can You Keep Up?”

Here’s something to consider: If the establishment finds that it faces the friendlier but deeply committed self-publishing workforce Howey envisions — a peaceful army of professionalizing, maturing, ambitious and collegial creative workers — doesn’t it confront a far more formidable alternative to its traditions than it has from “the flying monkey squad,” as one pundit recently dubbed the indies?

It has been relatively easy at times to dismiss independents sneering in the wilderness. What if they’re gracious, thoughtful, convivial, supportive of their fellows, not a flying monkey out there? How churlish might the establishment look then.

At Frankfurt on Friday, I was pleased to moderate Authoright’s presentation of a panel of London-based literary agents — Sophie Lambert, Sheila Crowley, and Cathryn Summerhayes. They had little to say against self-publishers. They are happy to consider self-published material, they told our audience, as long as it’s put forward along agency guidelines and, of course, is of the highest quality possible, the same criteria traditional authors must observe in making submissions.

Of course, agents are frequently the first to catch the new breeze. But maybe Howey’s right. Maybe the main points have been landed. There certainly was no need for a self-publisher to fight for something in Halle 4’s Room Alliance that afternoon. The field of play was as level as the gray carpet.

It Was About Writing, Wasn’t It?

A coda from Howey, himself. Today, he has posted a short piece at his site. Like me, Howey  enjoys writing on planes. I call it my “flying office” and have been known to book one-day cross-country round-trips just for the peculiar focus and freedom from the desk that Delta Air Lines gives me.

In Don’t Worry. I’m just writing., Howey writes:

It’s 1 time out of 100 that I write in public (usually by necessity, not by choice). It’s 1 time out of 100 that I write a scene that makes me cry (again, no stopping it). It’s 100 out of 100 times that these two overlap. Why the hell? I’ve had stewardesses (twice) ask me if I’m okay.

This will seem a funny and affecting anecdote to more technical colleagues in publishing, a more poignant and familiar one to writers.

And in his truce-talking essay’s comments section, you read a patient, simple reiteration of his perspective that seems to come from the same place. Something about humor and sensitivity. He’ll need this. Because the iron has been hot and it may not be so easy now to start chilling the fray and redirecting the faithful to their work — which was, after all, about writing.

Howey:

We’re already there. Time to back off a little, I think, and let those who are angry about the transition wail on us a little longer until their arms get tired. Then we can hold them up for a while until they get their wind back. TC mark

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